Looking for a way to deepen your knowledge and understanding of the Black experience in the U.S.? A great place to start is right in our nation’s capital, where you’ll dig deeper into the lives and meaningful actions of many icons of the Civil Rights and abolitionist movements and discover more heroes along the way. This itinerary provides a three-day immersive journey into African American culture, creativity, and community, past and present—plus, artistic and culinary sojourns exploring parts of Africa itself. No matter what your ethnic background, this is a trip that will stimulate and enlighten long after you return home.
Itinerary / 3 DAYSPLAN YOUR TRIP
DAY 1Beacons on the National Mall
Start your tour by paying a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Take the Metro to the Smithsonian stop and walk 15-20 minutes. The figure of Dr. King appears to emerge from a monumental slab of granite, the “Stone of Hope,” in reference to a line from his “I Have a Dream” speech. A magnificent, Rushmore-esque tribute to the great civil rights leader, carved by sculptor Lei Yixin, it’s even more breathtaking by night. The first federal memorial to honor a non-president and a person of color, the Memorial covers four acres and is open to the public 24 hours a day.
Head to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 16th president is not the only charismatic leader honored by the site. On the memorial’s iconic steps, you’ll find an engraved plaque marking the precise spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech—among the most iconic speeches ever delivered in U.S. history. On August 28, 1963, Dr. King spoke his truth to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters from those steps, and his words continue to reverberate loud and clear today, almost six decades later.
If a pick-me-up is needed, walk about 12 minutes to The Sweet Lobby on Barracks Row in Capitol Hill. A Black-owned boutique bakery, its founder, Dr. Winnette McIntosh-Ambrose, is a PhD in engineering and a winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, with a flair for French confections. Macarons and éclairs anyone?
Next up is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, an institution that’s simultaneously making and celebrating history. It’s the first museum ever to focus on connoisseurship of culture past and present through the lens of African Americans. Prepare to stay awhile, and to be blown away. Collections document art, history, and culture, with an astonishing set of artifacts that tell the story of African Americans, from the African Diaspora to today.
Wind down this long day of discovery by celebrating the nation’s great art form known as jazz. Located in Georgetown, Blues Alley is the world’s longest-running jazz supper club, about which the great Dizzy Gillespie once opined, “Now this is a jazz club.”
DAY 2Discover more icons of equal rights
Once back on the D.C. “mainland,” stop by Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, the oldest continuously Black-owned property in downtown Washington. Constructed by black artisans in 1886, this beautiful, exalting structure is open to the public. Now it’s time to learn about more heroes in our nation’s history. In honor of its namesake , educator-presidential-advisor-community-organizer-activist-hero, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site shows visitors a video presentation about her extraordinary life, dedicated to the tireless pursuit of “unalienable rights of the citizenship for Black Americans.”
Five minutes away is the profoundly moving African American Civil War Memorial, bearing the names of more than 209,000 African American soldiers and their white officers. This is also the address of the African American Civil War Museum, which tells the story of the United States Colored Troops and African American involvement in the American Civil War. (Note: The museum is open by appointment only.)
A short walk to U Street—formerly known as “Black Broadway”—will work up an appetite, and happily brings you to a DC culinary institution. The original location of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark since 1958, is renowned for chili so good it earned a prestigious James Beard award. Moving with the times, Ben’s recently began accommodating vegetarian and vegan diners with plant-based versions of its signature half-smoke and chili dog, whose original recipes haven’t changed since they first set D.C. diners drooling.
The historic Lincoln Theatre, built in 1921, staged performances by international headliners such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Pearl Bailey. Reopened in 1994, the theater now serves as a performing arts center. One metro stop away is Howard University, alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris. One of the nation’s most distinguished historically black institutions of higher learning, its Howard University Gallery of Art is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive representations of black artists.
DAY 3A full day of African American art—and artful food
Next, head to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, whose mission is to inspire conversations about the beauty, power, and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide. Its permanent collection comprises more than 12,000 works of art, containing a broad range of works from throughout the continent of Africa and its diaspora, in all media across time periods and geographic origin. Attention modernists and feminists: with more than 10 percent of the collection consisting of works from the 20th and 21st centuries, this museum houses the largest publicly held collection of African art from that era. More than 20 percent of the named artists represented in the collection identify as women—a percentage the museum actively seeks to increase.
Beautifully prepared and presented food is its own artform—for proof, look no further than the Adams Morgan neighborhood. There, an array of delicious African food tantalizes at several Ethiopian eateries, each with its own distinct style. At the first-rate Dukem, scooping up various stews with spongey injera bread is truly a first-class trip for the tastebuds and will leave a happy memory on your lips too.